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Saturday, February 04, 2006

Book Review: On Killing

On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning To Kill in Combat. By Lt. Col. Dave Grossman - This is a book that was recommended to me by my friend Jason over a year ago, and my only regret about reading it is that I didn't take his advice and read it sooner.
Undertaking a topic that has really never been covered in any great detail before, Lt. Col. Grossman goes in depth with a subject that I, along with most people, know very little about - the psychology of killing (and more specifically, the killing done by soldiers on the battle field). Drawing from extensive interviews as well as mountains of researchable data, Grossman dispels a lot of the myth that many of us have regarding the subject of killing, most of which has come from the Hollywood portrayal of such acts. Make no mistake, this is not a "how to" manual, but rather an in depth look at how adverse an action it is for a normal human being to take the life of another. It is simply not a normal thing to do, and the fact is, that most simply can not do it without the proper conditioning. The idea that soldiers can somehow march into battle and randomly kill with impunity is one that only exists on the big screen, as the author points out the immense psychological trauma endured by even the most hardened combat veterans.
Before reading On Killing, my view of PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome) was, admittedly, quite jaded. I saw it as veterans who just didn't want to face reality anymore, and that was their way out. My present view has, however, taken a 180 degree turn from that attitude. To read the interviews with WWII veterans who literally break down and cry some sixty years later at the very thought of a life that they took is humbling to say the least.
Our ideas of men in the Civil War, WWI, or WWII facing each other and mowing each other down in bloody combat is, to say the least, fantasy. As the author points out, only one man in five during WWII were actually willing to fire their weapon in combat. His prediction for Civil War era numbers are even lower. Keep in mind that these are infantrymen who are actually engaged in battle.
There is a large portion of the book dealing solely with the Vietnam War, and it's affect on service members. More specifically, how it was different than any other war, before or since, in how the people involved were affected psychologically speaking. If you were from that era, the author points out ideas that, while they may seem obvious upon reading, you may never have considered otherwise. I had discounted much of the talk regarding the mistreatment and negative psychological effects endured by many Vietnam vets before reading this book. Again, my thoughts and opinions have radically changed regarding this subject.
Grossman also spends a portion of the book discussing how modern media and video games are conditioning our children to kill. Although I am not totally sold on his theories, I must say that I at least have a new point of view. His relating of operant conditioning and behavioral conditioning to what is seen on the TV is an interesting concept. While I don't subscribe to it completely, I will say that his argument has some serious value and should be considered by anyone raising children.
There is simply far too much detail to cover in a review here. Suffice to say, this is a must read. Especially if you are in the military, but also if you are related to, or care about someone who is. And even if you are not, it is still a fascinating look into a subject that is very rarely (if ever) discussed in a serious, scholarly manor.
Grossman, a former Airborne Infantry and Ranger qualified officer and enlisted soldier, is now a psychology professor at West Point, as well as touring the country speaking on this very subject. It is a very well written, and easily accessible piece of literature that I highly recommend. Do yourself a favor and pick up a copy. You will not regret it.

15 comments:

~E said...

Based on your review alone, I want to read this book. My grandfather did 3 tours in Vietnam and suffers PTSD, though in typical stoic fashion for his generation refuses to admit that he could benefit from professional help. I've mentioned one of my brothers is in the Army right now... my youngest brother asked him when he came back from Iraq the first time if he'd ever killed anyone, his cryptic reply 'We've done some good things over there, but sometimes we've had to do other things we didn't want to do.' I can only imagine what that meant. Thanks for the heads up on this book.

El Jeffe said...

Normally, I don't hold much with non-fiction books, due to my preference for reading to be an escape from the messed-upness of today. After reading your review, my curiosity is definitely piqued. What a colossal subject, both from a depth standpoint; as well as importance factor. It's shaming to think that romance novels sell better than something of this magnitude. I'll talk to Oprah about incorporating it into the book club.

Mr. Twisted said...

Muse - Definately if you have family in the military and if psychology interests you at all, do not pass this one up. Monumental work.

el Jeffe - I'm pretty sure that if Oprah were to read anything this cool, her head would explode.

Jason Evans said...

LTC Grossman has been on Oprah... not sure if his book made the official list though... I believe that is sufficient reason for women to read it. ;)

~E said...

I've never even watched the Oprah show... and the criteria to make it on "Elona's MUST Read List" are much more stringent than that. So there!

=P

Mr. Twisted said...

Wasn't one of the books on her list recently outed as a total fraud?

El Jeffe said...

I guess that'll learn me not to mention her name ever again.

Mrs. WakeandaHalf said...

Twisted - Yes, James Frey's "biography" "A Million Little Pieces" turned out to be almost a total fraud. But it's ok, 'cause Oprah's really really mad at him!

Mr. Twisted said...

I'll bet she wrote him a nasty letter!

Jonathan Scott said...

Unfortunately, I'm jumping on this topic a little late. Regardless, I've got to throw in my two cents.

The problem with a lot of folks that I've encountered is that Vietnam is the last war that caused PTSD. Since the last few wars have lasted only months or weeks, these young kids haven't seen anything. I'm so tired of hearing that crock of crap from old farts that either haven't ever taken fire or were in some Battalion Support Area when they deployed.

I worked with a cool little guy who jumped into Northern Iraq with the 173rd Airborne Division. He was ridiculed by our chain of command because he asked if he could be left out of training missions. The simiulated fire fights and explosions were causing him problems. I overheard a conversation while driving for our Commander in which they ridiculed him and "all these young kids" who don't know what they're talking about.

Come to find out, this kid was involved in a bad ambush, and at one point, turned around to see a guy pointing an RPG directly at him from a very short distance. He shot him in the head before the rocket could be fired. In my opinion, the kid is a hero, not a war dodger. He's seen some crap, and if he's messed up in the head, then we owe it to him to help him out.

One more quick story. A guy I knew in Kuwait ended up on the front page of several newspapers in '03, because a journalist shot a pic of him running out of a firefight with a baby in his arms. A few months ago, it turns out he was arrested for a stand off with the MPs. The whole time, he was firing his 9mm into the wall of his appartment and calling in for close air support. He was litterally reliving his experience.

I've had to deal with weird emotions, personally, and there's certain times where I break down completely. It's just one of those things, I guess, but it's VERY real. Mine didn't get better till I sought help at the Base Hospital.

Mr. Twisted said...

Jonathan - First of all, good to have you back.
Second, I know who you are refering to, and it seems strange that the Col. in question (if it is who I assume it is) would ridicule him for that, seeing as how he is a big proponent of the book reviewed here. At least that was my understanding.
It is a tough situation for a commander to deal with, as it is not something tangible, and therefore, easily faked. There is really no way of knowing if the person making the claims is on the level or not.

Good input, by the way.

Jonathan Scott said...

Yeah, he was the guy who turned me on to Groseman. I guess I just hate how quickly people are judged in that community. It's all about time in service, patches, and fast you can run. A guy may have spent a combined total of 15 months in Afganistan and Iraq, killed some bad guys, survived IEDs, but if he's overweight, only a Specialist, and can't run, he's a piece of $#!%.

Mr. Twisted said...

Or if he wears a Hugh Heffner type bathrobe, smokes a pipe, can do a lot of pull-ups and can't run, then sometimes that soldier is forced to drive an imaginary van with a paper plate being used to simulate a steering wheel. All hypothetically speaking, of course.

Jonathan Scott said...

Uuuhh, yeah...ummm... hypothetically speaking, that sounds like one cool soldier.

Chief RZ said...

Jonathan-- Are you still on active duty? Try a VET center when you get off. Your benefit for the rest of your life.